B.C. plan to move away from fossil fuels will be difficult to implement, economist says

Monte Stewart
October 19, 2021

The B.C. government’s new $260-million electrification program could have challenges meeting its emission-reduction deadline, according to an energy economist at the University of British Columbia.

“It’s the right thing to do at this point, but it will not be enough,” said Werner Antweiler, who specializes in environmental economics and policy. “We need other measures that supplement the provision of subsidies, and these are coming from institutional angles.”

Under the NDP government’s new five-year plan, provincial power utility BC Hydro will provide $190 million worth of incentives to power homes, businesses and vehicles with electricity instead of fossil fuels.

According to a government news release, the plan builds on BC Hydro and provincial rebates and customer supports for the installation of heat pumps and electric-vehicle (EV) chargers in buildings and electrification measures outlined in the province’s long-term emissions-reduction program known as CleanBC. The electrification plan also contains new recommendations from the second phase of a BC Hydro review, including discounted CleanBC industrial electrification rates announced in January.

The province says about 70 per cent of its end-use energy demand is met through such fossil fuels as gasoline, diesel and natural gas.

In an interview with Research Money, Antweiler praised the government for initiating the fuel-switching effort but predicted that the electrification plan will run into institutional obstacles — not resistance — that will slow the acceptance, development and installation of green technologies that mesh with the provincial electricity grid.

Such institutional obstacles will include struggles to gain approvals from landlords and strata councils to retrofit buildings and install EV chargers. There may also be technical challenges and a lack of green-energy supply, given that sources of green energy are in stages of early development, he said.

Sticking to timeline may be difficult

“It's very difficult to have a fixed timeline here because we only realize what kind of problems arise once we're actually pushing these programs,” Antweiler said. He said that while it’s easy to write green-energy incentives into new building codes, which is increasingly being done, “retrofitting is really hard.”

“One should not underestimate how difficult it will be once we're moving out of the initial strong uptake from those who are willing (to switch fuel sources) and who are informed and who don't face all these obstacles to those down the road,” he said. “Their obstacles will get harder and harder.”

He said the province must “overcome an information problem” and help landlords and strata councils, among others, understand the benefit of fuel switching and put personnel in place to understand where solutions can be done and amortized over time.

However, Colin Armstrong, chair of the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (CHFCA), said the five-year timeline “sets out a nice, clear set of goals,” creating an opportunity for the green energy sector to “step up.”

“People don't want to hear how big these goals want to be,” said Armstrong. “They're all difficult. Is this realistic? Absolutely. If there's a will, there's a way to do it.

The CHFCA, a national non-profit organization also known as Hydrogen B.C., aims to commercialize hydrogen and fuel cells in Canada and overseas. The group manages the B.C. government’s hydrogen fuelling and clean-energy-vehicle fleet program, which is developing hydrogen fuel stations in the province.

Armstrong said the province must provide clear messaging on how it will support industry in developing green power sources and consumers in their purchasing of alternatives to fossil fuels. “Then we can plan around (the electrification program) and not all of a sudden get requests for proposals that we're not sure make sense,” he said.

Armstrong said it will also be important for the province to promote its low-carbon fuel standard, which annually reduces the carbon intensity of fuels used in B.C.

The province has allocated about $50 million to attract new industries seeking to run their businesses with clean power and reduce their carbon footprint.

Armstrong is the president and CEO of North Vancouver-based infrastructure developer Hydrogen Technology and Energy Corporation, whose projects include four BC hydrogen fuelling stations now in place, and another four under development in the region, along with other stations in Alberta and California.

The province has earmarked up to $20 million from the $260-million total for unspecified incentives and study funding that support hydrogen production. The province said the fuel-switching program also helps to advance the B.C. Hydrogen Strategy released in July.

“It won't be easy,” said Armstrong of meeting the emission-reduction goal. “It will take the part of everybody to make this happen. Certainly, we can't just rely on the government to make it happen. The public and the industry need to step up and make it all happen.”


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